Several burglaries as the Ripper strikes…

At 3.40 am on the morning of the 31 August 1888 Charles Cross made a startling discovery on Buck’s Row in Whitechapel. He was on his way to work at Pickfords in the City when he found a woman’s body lying in front of the entrance to a local stable yard. Cross was soon joined by Robert Paul who was following his route along the road now renamed Durward Street. The two men could see the woman had been attacked and ran off in search of a policeman.

The woman was Mary Ann Nichols, commonly known as ‘Polly’. She was the first ‘canonical’ victim of the Whitechapel murderer; or ‘Jack the Ripper’. Polly’s death heralded the start of the so-called ‘autumn of terror’ and would dominate the news hole for most of the rest of 1888.

However, the papers on that day were too late to carry the story of Polly’s brutal murder. Instead the Standard supplied its crime reading public with more tales from the Police Courts, on this day they were mostly burglaries – the archetypal crime of the eponymous ‘criminal class’.

At Greenwich James Clark and John Roberts (both listed as ‘of no home’) were accused of breaking into a stable in Deptford. They stole a pony and cart belonging to a grocer. Clark had previously been convicted and sent to prison for 3 months for embezzling funds from a previous employer. Both were committed for trial.

Henry Walter Barry, a 21 year-old clerk, was accused at Marylebone of burgling a house in Kilburn. He got away with a silver watch and chain and other goods belonging to a warehouseman. Barry was also charged with stealing some boots from a bootmaker who had initially let him borrow them as ‘he was a good customer’. When he never reappeared with the boots or any money he pressed charges. Barry was remanded for further enquiry.

John Terroad topped the bill however. He came up at Wandsworth Police Court charged with ‘burglariously entering the residence of Mr. Harry Bishop of Manor Street, Clapham, Mr. Edward James of Ilminster Gardens and a Mr Williams at Putney. In fact Terroad had boasted of ‘having committed 120 in various parts of London’. The justice committed in to trial.

With these three in custody Londoners could sleep a little easier in their beds that night, well at least until they read the breaking news about the ‘Whitechapel fiend’.

[From The Standard, Friday, August 31, 1888]

The docks burn as Polly Nichols is murdered; meanwhile at the police courts…

The Times 1 September 1888 02

On the 31 August 1888 the Daily News had a short report of hearings at a handful of the capital’s Police Courts. At Westminster Mr. D’Eyncourt fined an omnibus conductor ‘for delaying a car in Parliament Square’ (the vehicle was changing its horses – the Victorian equivalent of the broken down bus) and the paper’s reporter thought it raised an interesting question about how traffic was prioritized.

At Clerkenwell Albert Rheese and 5 of his companions were charged with running an illegal gaming house in Islington. At Guildhall ‘a youth named Seals’ was accused of stealing a box containing gold, stamps and coins, to value of £300.

Thomas Green found himself at Lambeth on a charge of dodging his fare on the London, Chatham and Dover Railway. He was in third class and had fallen asleep and so went ‘beyond his distance’. The magistrate took pity and discharged him.

In the same column to paper also reported that their had been a meeting of dock workers to protest that the parliamentary committee assembled to examine the ‘sweating system’ was not interested in hearing the views of dockers. One of the meetings leaders was Ben Tillett who later went on to play a key role in the Great Dock Strike a year later.

After this item was a report of huge fire on the docks (at the South Quay warehouse). This fire brought thousands of East Enders onto the streets to watch and was the topic of conversation. While it raged however, a new terror was about to unfold on the Whitechapel streets. In the early hours of Saturday morning PC Neil discovered the body of Mary Ann (‘Polly’) Nicholls in Buck’s Row; she was the first* victim of ‘Jack the Ripper’, there would be at least 4 more that summer and autumn.

*the first according to most researchers, others suggest the killer had struck at least once if not several times before he murdered Polly.

[from Daily News, Friday, August 31, 1888]

Two wheels bad, four wheels good? Cyclists in peril on the roads of Victorian England


Today we are used to seeing Lycra-clad cyclists weave through traffic queues or clog up country lanes riding two abreast. I have been shouted at whilst riding my bike and cut up by impatient motorists to the extent that now I rarely venture out on two wheels. However, it seems that  road rage towards cyclists is nothing new.

In August 1876 members of the London Bicycle Group were heading off for a race when they passed along a  stretch of road near the Welsh Harp in Hendon. The St Alban’s stage coach came along beside them with several passengers sitting outside (as was normal).

As Mr Gee (the secretary of the cycle club) went past the coach one of the gentlemen on board swung a rope with an iron ball attached. Gee swerved, to avoid the ball hitting his wheels, but instead got the force of coach driver’s whip across his shoulders.

Another member of the cycle group was no so lucky. As the coach went past the man again swung his rope and caught Mr Mitchell’s bike in the wheels. The bike and rider were dragged along for a few moments before the rope snapped. Mr Mitchell’s ‘clothes were torn, his leg injured, and his bicycle was damaged. This occurrence provoked laughter from the coach passengers’.

The cyclists pursued the coach to Edgware where it was stopped and they went to find a policeman. However the constable was less than helpful, refusing to act as he hadn’t seen the incident himself and ‘no marks of violence were visible.

Mr Gee had come before his local magistrate at Marylebone Police Court to ask his advice.  Mr Newton told him that Mr Mitchell could ‘bring an for injuries and damages’ against the man on the stage and Gee could apply for a summons from the local authorities. The cyclists thanked him and left.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 30, 1876]

Daily doings at Thames Police Court

Three cases today that demonstrate the wide variety of hearings that police magistrates covered in the late 1800s.   These were all reported in late August 1888 at the Thames Police Court.

First a Mr Saunders applied to the court for a summons against the East London Waterworks Company for failing to supply him with water. The company had previously stated that his cistern was not large enough. They told him that under law they were allowed to stipulate how large his cistern was. Six years ago Saunders had encountered the same problem but had disputed it successfully  in court. The magistrate granted him a summons. This sort of dispute was not uncommon; the registers of the Thames Court (held by the LMA  near Farringdon) have many such complaints.

Next up Emma Stiles was prosecuted by George Stiff, a conductor for the North Metropolitan Tram Company. Stiles was traveling on a tram when Stiff asked her for her fare. She refused and then struck  him when he tried to turf her off the car. The magistrate discharged her when he found out her husband was also on the tram stating that he should have paid the fare on her behalf.

Finally George Smith was sent to prison for a month fro breaking into Mr Peter Bamman’s shop on Leman Street. The tailor had locked up at a quarter past midnight and gone home. At just after two PC Cook (263H) was passing by when he heard a noise. He called for Bamman and the two entered the property to find Smith inside, hiding under a table. All he had stolen was a vase.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, August 29, 1888]

A pair of (literal) ‘house breakers’ are caught in Spitalfields



When Mr Smart let his house in Gun Street, Spitalfields to Mr and Mrs Fadey he probably had no idea of the trouble it was going to cause him.John Fadey and his wife Mary were elderly and poor but they had a letter of reference from a man who was ‘then making a good figure in the world’, Mr Groebecker.

That was in November 1834 but wind forward to August and the situation had changed and Smart and the Fadeys were in the Worship Street Police Court. Groebecker had fallen from grace and was in now prison. And Mr Smart’s house was being dismantled, piecemeal.

The court heard that the Fadeys had been stripping the house of all saleable parts. A boy ‘belonging to them’ (their servant probably, not their son) was seen cutting out the window panes for the couple to hawk ‘about the streets for sale’.

‘The doors and window sashes, chimney pieces, the lead from the roof, everything, in short, that could be made available, had been carried off.’ When a neighbour challenged them they were told to mind their own business. At last Smart found out what was happening and called the police.

Constable 26 of H Division turned up at the property and Mr Fadey tried to escape; the policeman chased him over the rooftops before finally securing him. When what remained of the house was searched it was found to be almost devoid of property; the couple had literally sold everything and were sleeping on straw.

In court a  surveyor estimated the cost of the damage at £31 10s (about half a year’s wages for a labourer) and another witness testified that the couple were suspected of committing similar offences in four other locations. The magistrate remanded them for further examination so these ‘other’ offences could be looked into.

I imagine John Fadey was trying to survive in the only way he understood and exploiting the absentee landlords of the East End to do so. Landlords were notorious for evicting tenants who couldn’t pay their rent, often detaining their goods in the process. Mr Smart was the victim in this case but it is hard not to have some sympathy with an elderly couple who have been driven by poverty to such a desperate state.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 28, 1835]

An eager recruit and a disgraced guardsman


Two military related stories from  the police courts today that reveal a little about the attraction and realities of life in the Victorian armed forces.

First that of William Ames Rowbotham who was a ‘fine-built’ young man of 18 and served in Her Majesty’s 11th Regiment of Foot (the Devonshires).

When he was recruited William had to swear that he was not an apprentice (and so hadn’t run away from any obligations). He swore to Sergeant Cooper that he had been one, but not for 3 or 4 years. He said that persons had told him that since he had been apprenticed after the age of 14 he allowed to enlist.

The magistrate at Westminster remanded William and asked that these ‘persons’ be found because he was in error and having left his lawful apprenticeship (we know not as what) he liable to punishment.

Charles Cracknell’s case was more straightforward. Cracknell had been discharged from the Coldstream Guards, indeed he had been ‘drummed out in disgrace’. He was at Westminster charged with stealing a coat that belonged to his former colour-sergeant. He had stolen it from the sergeant’s room in the Chelsea Barracks and removed the military buttons and decorations before selling it to a woman in Westminster for 2s.

She appeared in court to testify that when she was summonsed for receiving the coat (she said hadn’t known was stolen) she had given a description that led to Cracknell’s arrest. The magistrate remanded him in custody.

The army had a high profile in Victorian society, probably enjoying greater public affection than they had ever done previously. But stories about the military still fell into the two tropes surrounding soldiery: they were either brave and daring or criminal and violent. They were a necessary in wartime (and Britain fought a series of colonial wars in the 19th century, culminating in the South African [Boer] War of 1899-1902) but a burden or a danger in peace.

As Kipling wrote:

We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, now we aren’t no blackguards too.But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you. (Tommy, 1892)

[From The Morning Post, Friday, August 27, 1869]

Look after your belongings if you’re waiting for a tram at the Angel.


A tram at Upper Street, Islington (c.1908)

On a Monday evening in August 1874 Detective Allingham of N Division, Metropolitan Police, and PC Anst (252N) were watching the tramcars at the Angel, Islington. They must have had some information that crimes were being (or had been) committed on this popular form of public transport.

They spotted three men mingling with the passengers waiting to board; they ‘did not enter but pushed in among the crowd’. Allingham and Anst observed them ‘put their hands into the pockets of several ladies’.

The policemen followed them ‘up Pentonville’ (presumably the Pentonville Road as this runs towards King’s Cross from the Angel) and overheard them discussing their success. One, later identified as Charles Ackerman, a labourer, ‘produced a pocket-handkerchief’ and said that was all he’d managed to filch. It was slim pickings but enough for the coppers to arrest them.

The three appeared in the Clerkenwell police court and were named as Henry Gordon (a glass blower), Donald Brown (a japanner), and Ackerman; all three lived close to each other in and around Clerkenwell Green. Inspector Taylor, appearing for the police said that ‘there were frequent complaints from the Angel corner of persons having their pockets picked whilst getting in and alighting from tram cars’.

The three men were charged with picking pockets but the evidence was slender, and so the magistrate used the discretion available to him using the wide-ranging power of the Vagrancy laws rather than trying to convict them as thieves on such limited evidence. He sent them to the house of correction for a month as ‘rogues and vagabonds’.

[From The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 26, 1874]

A ‘notorious burglar’ in Blackfriars

George McDonald was a ‘well-known’ thief. In 1853 he’d been sentenced at Ipswich assizes to 12 months for housebreaking. On release he had again been in trouble with the law but another spell of  imprisonment doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression on him.

In August 1858 he was stopped while walking down the Blackfriars’ Road by a constable on his beat. PC Jones 157L was suspicious of a man carrying a large bundle at 6 in the morning and asked him what it was. McDonald said he had no idea, he’d been given it by someone ‘to carry’. It was possibly the oldest excuse in the world (along with ‘I found it’) and so PC Jones arrested him.

Back at the station house the bundle was found to contain ‘two pieces of cloth, two coast, a shawl, a dress, a table cover’, and ‘other articles’. The police also discovered a screwdriver and ‘an instrument for turning door keys round from the outside’.  The station was soon informed that a property on Queen Street, Blackfriars, had been burgled that night.

The owner, a tailor named Charles Wheeler, identified the missing items in court as his property. McDonald was ‘a notorious burglar’ the court heard and the magistrate had no hesitation in committing him for trial. George doesn’t appear in the Old Bailey but that was probably because he ended up at the Surrey assizes. I have no doubt he was soon back in prison.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, August 25, 1858]

The songbird and the ungrateful sailor


In August 1888, just before the Whitechapel murder series began in earnest. Edward Muir was charged at Thames Police Court with stealing a songbird – an East India rock (or ‘common’) myna to be precise.

It belonged to John Hyam who kept a boarding house on St George’s Street. Muir had been in a desperate state when he met Hyam and the man offered him a place in his house because he took pity on him.

The paper reported that Muir had ‘repaid his kindness’ by stealing the valuable bird and its cage and sold it for 5s (when it was worth £5). Muir claimed however, that it was his to sell and that he another similar bird on board a German ship ‘to which he belonged’.

Mr. Lushington chose to believe the boarding house owner not the sailor and he sentenced Muir to six weeks hard labour for the crime.

[From The Morning Post, Friday, August 24, 1888]